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Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs travel to New Jersey

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New Jersey Devils v Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

Let’s take this ragtag band of depth defenders and play against the best offence in the NHL.

Toronto Maple Leafs @ New Jersey Devils
07:00 PM at Prudential Center
Watch on: SNE, SNO, SNP, MSG, MSGSN2

Opponent’s Site: All About The Jersey

The Leafs last game was at home on November 21 against the New York Islanders, which Toronto lost by a score of 3-2. The Leafs have a record of 10-5-5 so far.

The New Jersey Devils last played at home on November 21 against the Edmonton Oilers. The Devils won by a score of 5-2, and their current league record is 16-3-0.

Them

We used to crack bad jokes about going to hell when the Leafs played the Devils on the road. You know, because it’s Jersey, ha ha ha... uh, yeah. Those days are gone. It’s hell for a different reason, red and hot:

 hockeyviz.com

The defensive map is just as intimidating. I think we saw that when the Devils were in Toronto. They very effectively snap to defending with five men back, they clog up the slot and they make it very difficult for their opponents to do anything meaningful. Then as soon as a shot banks off someone’s shinpads, they have the puck and away they go. And they can go fast. They’re disciplined and quick. And their offence that grows out of really tight defence reminds me very strongly of vintage Boston. (Boston right now is piling up points by being generalists, and having no weaknesses, they’re different, and proving there’s no one path through the forest while they’re leading the NHL in the standings.)

The knock on the Devils is that that heat map is made up of a set of games against fairly weak opponents. Fair enough, there’s truth in that, but you can’t go over there and complain about evil Gary Bettman bringing parity to the NHL and then come here and say the Devils just played really bad bottom feeders, so it’s okay. The days of teams being as bad as the old Sabres teams are over. Parity has changed the definition of weak.

So how did they get this good? Well up in that picture up top is John Marino. Pittsburgh signed him for six years at $4.4 million and then got in a cap crunch when they wanted to re-sign Evgeni Malkin. So they traded him for one of those guys New Jersey used to play in the NHL (Joey Anderson was one) and a third-round pick. Marino isn’t a star, but for the Devils, with cap space to spare as they build up, they can afford a defender who is solid with no real weaknesses to play 20+ minutes a night at that price. Toronto had to gut the forwards to get Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie on the roster.

The Devils get to pinch pennies because they’re getting world-beating performances out of Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier at William Nylander prices, not Mitch Marner prices. That difference (and no, I don’t think Kyle Dubas is bad and stupid and not tough enough, and should of got Matthews and Marner for cheaper, all he had to do was take his glasses off and stare them down...) but that difference means the Devils fans don’t sit around fantasy trading every player making over one million. They have very good support players in their top six that cost what those players cost. And they don’t have a single defender making less than one million, with Dougie Hamilton topping the list at $9 million.

The Devils got to the point where they could build at will with no bad contracts getting in the way (insert picture of smiling Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev here) because they stayed in the basement for a long time. Long enough to become a joke team. Har har. And they built their team so well, that one of the best support forwards in the NHL, Ondrej Palat, is on IR, and they don’t even care! They don’t really need him.

The Devils have built their team almost entirely via player evaluation — both at the draft and in trade. I don’t actually think Lindy Ruff is all that great as a coach, but he obviously has the demeanor to weather the ups and downs. This team was made by the General Managers, mostly the most recent one. Tom Fitzgerald’s trades are worth a look.

Lines

These lines are from a couple of days ago, we’ll update you at gametime if anything changes of significance.

Source: Amanda Stein via Daily Faceoff

Tomas Tatar - Nico Hischier - Fabian Zetterlund
Erik Haula - Jack Hughes - Jesper Bratt
Yegor Sharangovich - Jesper Boqvist - Dawson Mercer
Miles Wood - Michael McLeod - Nathan Bastian

Jonas Siegenthaler - Dougie Hamilton
Ryan Graves - John Marino
Brendan Smith - Damon Severson

Vitek Vanacek - likely starter
Akira Schmid

Us

The Leafs are the Leafs are the Leafs. Lost in the bitter ending to the last game was a banger performance by the team offensively just as another defender went on IR. They need that offensive spark plus a full 60 minutes of 100% concentration to win this one.

Nick Robertson returns to the lineup, and Denis Malgin sits out. The lines from practice are below, and are likely what we’ll see tonight. The defence is what it is, and if the Leafs think now is a good time to toss Mac Hollowell in the deep end, well, maybe he’ll surprise me and swim.

Lines

Michael Bunting - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Nick Robertson - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Alex Kerfoot - Pontus Holmberg - Calle Järnkrok
Zach Aston-Reese - David Kämpf - Pierre Engvall

Mark Giordano - Justin Holl
Rasmus Sandin - Timothy Liljegren
Jordie Benn - Mac Hollowell

Matt Murray - expected starter
Erik Källgren

The Game

Hockey is not particularly predictable game by game. I wouldn’t want this Leafs lineup to play that Devils team in a playoff round, but one game? Who knows. You have to play it like you think you can win it, though. Even if your best defender is 39 years old. You can go look up the Leafs chances yourself in all the usual places. I’m in the “don’t tell me the odds” camp tonight.

Go Leafs Go. Once more unto the breach and all that stuff.

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